Thursday, May 29, 2008

Mayor and City Council Mull Putting Memphis School Board Out of Business

Posted By on Thu, May 29, 2008 at 4:00 AM

School funding is a more urgent issue than the next superintendent.

That, in a nutshell, was Mayor Willie Herenton's message to the Memphis City Council Thursday in a session that raised more questions than it answered.

Herenton said he wants the city schools to open on schedule in August, he wants to avoid lawsuits between government agencies, and he wants to avoid any circumstances that would cause the state to withhold funds from Memphis City Schools.

Beyond that, however, the mayor and several members of the council indicated they are willing to engage in some 11th-hour gambles that could result in a city school board with diminished powers or no powers at all.

Herenton did not discuss his own plans or the qualifications of the two finalists for superintendent. He said he has been reevaluating his thoughts on school funding as recently as Thursday morning, when he talked with City Council attorney Allan Wade about contacts with state officials.

There are several "what if" scenarios. The context is that the City Council has to approve a budget and do it soon, like in the next week or two. And the school board has to pick a superintendent soon, like in the next week or two. Council members are more at risk politically, because they must either pass a property tax increase or cut as much as $93 million in city funding for schools. The school board submits a budget but the council sets and approves the tax rate.

One new wrinkle discussed Thursday is passing the buck, literally, to Shelby County and state government by approving no additional funds. Herenton and Wade suggested that could result in the state board of education dissolving the local school board and allowing the county to appoint a new agency to run the city school system. "We're talking about some heavy stuff here," said Herenton.

Under a new governing structure, "children could be better served," the mayor said.

Some council members seemed to agree.

"What is the downside?" asked Councilman Jim Strickland, after ticking off the possibilities of school board dissolution, doing away with the ADA or average daily attendance funding formula, and having the county be responsible for all school funding.

The council meets next Tuesday to discuss the school system budget. Meanwhile, the school board is scheduled to have second meetings with the two superintendent finalists, also next week.

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